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Friday, May 6, 2016

BVU student globetrots to study the environment

Thursday, December 20, 2007

3 continents, 55,000 miles in ecological learning odyssey

Todd Wical, a Buena Vista University junior from Wayne, Nebraska, had a summer you'll find hard to believe.

A biology and psychology double major, Todd compressed into 71 days three study-travel and internship experiences that took him over 55,000 miles to three continents.

After returning home from a 19-day BVU study-travel journey to South Africa in May, Todd left for Queensland, Australia for a five-week internship he arranged through the Australian Wildlife Conservancy to study endangered plants and animals at the Brooklyn Wildlife Sanctuary. Then, he traveled to Barrow, Alaska, for 17 days to work with a University of Alaska/Fairbanks research team studying the migration and breeding habits of the King Eider, a large sea duck, on the North Slope of Alaska. With no time to spare, he was back on campus the day after classes started for the fall semester.

Tackling such internationally diverse academic travel experiences in one summer would be a challenge for anyone, and for Todd "it was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made." However, these were all experiences that he wanted and they were only available to him during the same brief stretch of summer.

Todd gives credit to Dr. Rick Lampe, professor of biology, for encouraging him along the way. Lampe also nominated Todd for the J. Leslie Rollins Fellowship, which helped him finance his internship in Australia. As a Deans Fellow, Todd received stipends toward travel cost to Africa and Alaska.

Here was Todd's summer itinerary:

* In late May, he and other BVU students left on a 19-day study-travel adventure led by Lampe; Dr. James Hampton, professor of biology; and Mark Kirkholm, director of security at BVU, entitled "Issues in South African Biology." It was the ultimate field study to a biology seminar presented on campus in the spring to give the students a basic knowledge of the region, including some history, culture and societal issues.

The trip included photo safaris to three provincial parks in KwaZulu Natal Province, and ended in Kruger National Park. "One day we were driving down a dirt road trying to find our camp when a 20-foot giraffe suddenly stepped out of the bushes right into the middle of the road," he recalls. "With all of our gasps, the oxygen was nearly sucked out of our vehicle. It was an amazing sight."

While Todd's memories of the African wildlife will be lasting, it was encounters with the Zulu people that had the most impact on him. "Seeing children walk over 3 kilometers a day just to go to school for a mere four hours made me think about how education in the U.S. is seen as an option and not a privilege. It also made me understand that as I pursue my career, there is more than money and fame with education. It is about service to others. In South Africa, if one could volunteer a few months of time to help educate the local population, those people would be changed forever. It really gave me a life perspective on who I want to serve with my education."

* After returning from Africa, a few days later he left for a five-week internship in the Brooklyn Wildlife Sanctuary near Queensland, Australia. Todd worked with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy to plan this field experience to study the endangered plants and wildlife of the area, which is home to 71 ecosystems, of which 41 are threatened. Todd set up ecological study sites that will be continue to be monitored for years to come. He also participated in census studies of endangered species.

"I will never forget arriving at the sanctuary and sleeping there for the first night alone in the middle of nowhere," recalls Todd. "The nearest human resident was miles away and my only transportation was a bike. The first night, I had bats in my house, tree frogs all over the toilet, tarantulas crawling on the floor, and geckos chirping and crawling on the windows. With the anxiety of the next day's events and my fear of the local fauna, I don't even know if I slept an hour that night."

The experience gave Todd an overall look at the many variables that cause destruction of an ecosystem, and what it takes to remediate an ecosystem. "What totally boggled my mind was seeing that things we are learning about science at BVU are the exact same things other scientists are learning around the world."

This internship also gave Todd more of a world perspective of science. "It really opened my eyes to the global picture of things. What we do in the United States affects environments around the world, and what others do affects our environment. Even though we may be thousands of miles apart, every human being on earth is interconnected."

* His summer ended with a 17-day internship at Barrow, Alaska working with University of Alaska/Fairbanks biologist Steffen Oppel's research team to study the migration and breeding ecology of the King Eider, a large sea duck. He traveled by helicopter to the tundra on the North Slope of Alaska, 200 miles from the nearest civilization and within a few miles of the Beaufort Sea. Todd worked with Oppel's team to surgically implant Global Positioning System (GPS) transmitters in King Eiders to track their movements during migration. The field study gave Todd hands-on experience with groundbreaking scientific research, but also a broader picture of some of the impact the world is facing from global warming and oil exploration/drilling. He also spent a day with a USGS field biologist to capture shore birds and test them for Avian Influenza.

Todd found much of the knowledge he has gained through his education at BVU helpful in this field experience, especially in the surgery on the King Eiders to implant the GPS transmitters. "The aseptic techniques that I learned at BVU helped me do surgery on the King Eiders, with the help of a veterinarian, so I didn't contaminate the surgical site."

Todd has also prepared a report on how GPS techniques used with the King Eider study might also be applied to tracking of mammals.

His Alaskan experience also gave him another perspective on his career plans. "As I head towards a medical degree, I realize that as a health professional you cannot ignore the outside environment that so readily influences our health. I plan to look at medicine in more of an environmental framework, rather than a 'deal with the problem' issue. There is no reason to keep treating the symptoms of an illness caused by an environmental factor, when treating the cause can eliminate the problem altogether."

This fall, Todd has shared with other BVU students what he learned from these experiences. "I also plan to make a general presentation to the BVU community to show other students, faculty and staff the opportunities at BVU, and how realistically possible these types of experiences are for students here."

Each of the trips had an impact on Todd's life in a different way, particularly in seeing people who were unselfishly dedicated to a cause. In South Africa, it was people educating the Zulus and saving endangered animals. In Australia it was saving flora and fauna from extinction. In Alaska, it was people protecting the environment. "In each situation, I really saw what it meant to be dedicated to a cause," says Todd. "I realized that satisfaction trumps money in a career, hands down."

Note: For more information about the Brooklyn Wildlife Sanctuary in Australia, go to www.australianwildlife.org/Brooklyn.asp.... learn more about the King Eider research, go to mercury.bio.uaf.edu/kingeider/KIEI_Home.htm.

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